I think I was first exposed to dystopia in fifth grade. Not that my fifth grade teacher was some kind of demon or sadist, mind you. But it was around that time that I read for the first time, in quick succession, 1984, Brave New World, and Anthem (not to mention discovered its musical adaptation). There’s something seductive and compelling about dystopias, warnings about how things can go so very wrong. I’ve dived back into them a lot over the years, on the screen and on the page.
I’ve had less experience with utopias. I’ve never read the Thomas More work that gave birth to the name, if not the concept. I did read Plato’s Republic in college, but it’s hard to look at that as really being utopic to modern eyes. The other utopian novel I really remember reading is Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. Written in 1888, it’s about a guy who sleeps for more than a century and awakes to find it a socialist paradise. Given what had actually happened by the time 2000 rolled around, it was a hilariously out of date prediction.
But I started thinking more about utopias as works of fiction recently after I read Island.
It’s Aldous Huxley’s last novel and a kind of rejoinder to Brave New World. It covers a lot of the same big ideas as the earlier dystopian novel, but in an (allegedly) positive way. There’s a chart in the Wikipedia entry for the book that does a good job of boiling down the comparison:
Whatever the charms of Pala, the fictional southeast Asian island nation that provides the backdrop for Island, it’s not a very engaging work of fiction. Nominally it’s about a Brit, Will, who washes ashore there (intentionally, it seems) and experiences all the island’s many facets while recovering from his injuries. Said facets are a blend Buddhism, western liberalism, and (to at least one person’s eyes) Scientology and make sense in a lot of ways. Still, Will just basically drifts from place to place and while some individual scenes are well executed (there’s a very expected death later on that’s really touching), there isn’t much of a story.
I think this might be a problem inherent to utopian stories. Dystopias are about struggle, usually individuals standing up to some kind of overwhelming force. It’s easy to empathize with those characters, to buy into their struggle. Likewise, it’s easy to see where the antagonists in such stories are coming from. Written well, they think they’re doing the right thing, too. It’s the basis of good conflict, which is what drama is all about. In utopias, by contrast, everyone is pretty much happy. There’s not much conflict and, thus, not much drama. The narrative can be interesting, maybe even occasionally compelling, but it’s hardly something that sucks you in as a reader.
Another issue with utopias is that they can often seem kind of dystopic, depending on your point of view. I mentioned Plato’s Republic earlier, in which he sketches out his version of an ideal society – one that is anti-democratic, requires a rigid class system, and squishes individuals for the benefit of the state – that sounds more like a dystopia to me. Huxley’s Pala sounds like a pretty nice place – tropical weather, mind expanding drugs, all the sex you can have, creative alternatives to criminal justice – but it’s not perfect. For one thing there are mynah birds constantly harping out slogans (“Attention! Here and now, boys!”) that would be aggravating to no end. For another, all this apparently comes from the top down, mandated via a government overhaul that happened a generation or two back. There’s no indication what happens when somebody dissents from this version of the perfect life, how that’s handled. The only naysayers are the soon-to-be ruler and his European mother who are so out of touch that it’s clear Huxley doesn’t want you to take them seriously.
But the thing that struck me the most as dystopic in Island comes near the end, when the main character is talking with a local child about Oedipus Rex. They have the play in Pala, but it has a happy ending, wherein two children from Pala enter the play and convince everyone not to kill or maim themselves because none of this is their fault. To the problem of Oedipus being married to his mother, they simply advice stop being married to her. It all reeks of one of those stories modified by a totalitarian regime to show Dear Leader giving wisdom to historical figures and changing history. It’s also bizarrely simple minded in terms of a “solution” to the problem.
In the end, what makes it most difficult for me to get into utopias is that they are, at bottom, dreams that we know will never come true. Dystopias, by contrast, always seem prescient and just over the horizon (the good ones, at least). It’s not for nothing the More’s term means “no place.” Huxley basically concedes this in Island, as the book ends with the island’s new ruler (the one with the European mother) joining forces with the neighboring nation’s strongman to begin a quest to “modernize” Pala. Even in fiction, such places can’t last long.